James Clayden is an innovative artist based in Melbourne who has worked in theatre, film and painting for over thirty years – and yet he is still one of Australia's best kept artistic secrets. But this situation is at last beginning to change, beginning with the cycle of four short films called The Ghost Paintings – a remarkable, haunting, rich series.
The Ghost Paintings were begun in 1986 on Super 8 film, and have been continued in more recent times in the newer and more liberating medium of digital video.
Although drawn to the sombre and contemplative edge of the avant-garde tradition, Clayden is unique in the way he draws influences from figures as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Andrei Tarkovsky. Although he has always stayed true to his own vision, his style now seems as contemporary and cutting-edge as that of the French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre, 1998).
Clayden mixes cryptic fragments of narrative with a bold, pictorial abstraction and a soundtrack mix that is at once disorienting and seductive. Part 1 gives us a glimpse of narrative: as often in Clayden's work, it is an ambiguous fragment of menace and dread, of possible sexual violence, a violation of solitude. By the time of Part 4, we have plunged deeply into fragmentation and blurry abstraction, where everything is cryptic but charged with the residues of feeling.
Clayden's work with actors is special. Brilliant Australian actors such as Helen Hopkins and Tom Wright are called upon to create non-psychological but intense performances. They become pure beings, flashes or incarnations of painfully contradictory emotional states: ecstasy, despair, perplexity, rage.
Clayden has often spoken of his desire, through art, to strip away the inessential and pierce to the pure heart of things. These Ghost Paintings chew up pieces of classic literature, grand mythology and the daily atrocities reported in the news, in order to arrive at crystalline pictures of doubt and angst.
The good news is that Clayden, now more productive than ever, continues to work prolifically in this digital vein, working with the same actors and going deeper than ever into his challenging, arresting style of audiovisual collage in HAMLET X (2003) and The Marey Project (2005).
© Adrian Martin August 2003/January 2004